At Last: a Movie About Violence that May Discourage It


June 17, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Allen Hughes, one of the 21-year-old twin brothers who directed the movie, ''Menace II Society,'' says, ''Our intention was to have the audience turn away.''

These two African-American prodigies have made a stunning, troubling movie that compels contemplation of this question: In a nation saturated with violence, can a portrayal of violence be valuable because it is therapeutic?

The answer may be: Yes, if the portrayal is so relentlessly realistic that it nearly sickens viewers and strengthens their resolve to enforce domestic tranquility.

This ''Menace'' does, from the first frames showing the casual murder of a Korean couple in their convenience store, to the final fusillade of the drive-by shooting that kills the movie's protagonist and narrator, Caine.

Caine is shown as the essentially unparented child of an addictive mother (soon dead of an overdose) and a murderous father who guns down a man during a living room card game. At the end of the movie a child watches Caine die.

The movie's unrelievedly bleak message is that the inter-generational transmission of violence will continue.

The almost randomness of the killings and beatings, and the almost affectlessness of the killers and beaters, combined with the numbing profanity of people whose most common locutions are the coarsest in the language, bludgeon the audience into a frame of mind akin to the fatalism that envelops most of the movie's characters.

The Hughes brothers live in Pomona, quite a social distance from the grim Los Angeles neighborhoods their movie portrays as grinders of young lives. The script was written by another young African-American, Tyger Williams, 24, who calls himself ''a suburban child.''

He says, accurately, that ''Menace" is less like the most successful (until now) movie portrayal of Los Angeles gang life, ''Boyz N the Hood,'' than it is like ''GoodFellas.''

''GoodFellas,'' an unblinking and entirely unsentimental look at the violent world of petty white New York mobsters, was a brilliantly made movie that, arguably, should not have been made.

It told a truth rigorously, but, in a nation echoing with gunfire, there may be some subjects too savage, too desensitizing, to be suitable for mass entertainment.

''Menace'' tells a more important truth, about the savagery engulfing wide swaths of America's cities. But might the telling of it contribute to the contagion?

The critic whose judgment I trust most concerning such movies is Leroy O'Shield, a 50-year old African-American who is the no-nonsense commander of Chicago's West Side 15th police district, a dangerous place.

In his astringent opinion, ''Boyz N the Hood'' is a ''training film'' for crime, communicating ''the mystique of being tough.'' He noted that one of Chicago's most violent weekends followed the showing of ''Boyz'' on HBO.

At my request, he saw ''Menace'' last weekend and came away with mixed emotions. The movie's violence, extraordinary in quantity and character, may, he thinks, be necessary to attract into theaters the inner city young men who need to see violence presented without a scintilla of romanticism.

The American Psychological Association says that by the time an average television-watching, movie-going (never mind video game-playing) American child reaches seventh grade, he or she has witnessed 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence.

But he or she probably has never seen violence rendered as convincingly as ''Menace'' does unless he or she lives in one of urban America's war zones.

Mr. O'Shield is pleased whenever he sees movies with strong and caring adult males in inner city settings. In ''Menace,'' one such, a teacher, says to a pair of young men, ''Being a black man in America isn't easy. The hunt is on and you're the prey.'' But the point that the movie hammers home is that the predators are young black men.

I wish for ''Menace'' a huge audience of young inner city males who need to see violence drained of all traits or consequences that could make it charismatic. ''Menace'' also deserves a large audience of American adults, for two reasons.

First, it is an utterly unsweetened taste of life in a portion of America that is as foreign to most Americans as, say, Somalia. Such convincing works of art -- Richard Price's 1992 novel, ''Clockers,'' is another -- are invaluable contributions to the nation's stock of realism.

Second, ''Menace'' may help concentrate the public's mind on the nation's bizarre mis-allocation of its energies.

Since ''Menace'' opened on May 26, U.S. soldiers have been sent on a ''peacekeeping'' mission to Macedonia and have punished a Somalian ''warlord'' responsible for the deaths of 23 Pakistani soldiers.

Between May 26 and June 13, however, 97 people were murdered in Los Angeles County. Just one part of one urban area. Just 19 days.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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